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Advocates Say Citizen Mining Complaint Process Weakened By Rule Change

A coal silo near the old Marsh Fork Elementary School.
A coal silo near the old Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Environmental and community advocates in Appalachian coal communities are concerned about a new federal rule, finalized this week, that is changing the process that allows citizens to file complaints about polluting coal mining operations.

The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said in a Tuesday press release that the changes to the 10-Day Notice policy would “streamline” the complaint process. 

Under federal law and agency regulations, anyone can notify the agency about alleged mining violations. Under the original rule, the agency would share the complaint with state regulators. That kicked off a 10-day clock for the state to take action, either by forcing the company to fix the problem, or showing why action wasn’t necessary.

Under the new rule, the agency can informally contact state regulators before sending a 10-Day Notice. Officials said it would allow for more flexibility between state and federal investigations. Final language for the rule has not been made public. 

“This rule restores [the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act] mandate of cooperative federalism, reduces duplicative red tape, and ensures we work alongside our state partners who are the primary enforcement authorities under the law,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Kate MacGregor said in the release. 

Environmental groups fear the changes weaken their ability to protect communities and the environment. In a statement addressing the changes proposed earlier this year, the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity said the new rule changes the entire reporting process, making it more difficult for residents and making responses from regulators “discretionary instead of mandatory.”

Vivian Stockman, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said the 10-Day Notice process has been an important tool used in Appalachia.

The process was one tool used by activists to force the relocation of Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County away from the shadow of a coal processing plant, coal slurry impoundment and mountaintop removal operation. The groups argued the operations threatened the health and safety of the students.

“This rule change is all about trying to thwart people from seeking help when their communities are harmed by coal companies’ actions,” Stockman said. “What is indisputable is that this administration will side with the coal barons, communities be damned.”

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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